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The return to work of an employee after a workplace bullying episode is probably one of the most challenging return to work scenarios that you have to manage. If an employee is at risk because of plant and/or equipment, it can often be resolved through repair or replacement. However, when an employee has been bullied by another employee, and both of them are still in the workplace, repairing a relationship isn’t that easy.

Returning to work is good for everybody, isn’t it?

When there has been a workplace injury, returning to work is important. The benefits are:

  • The employee recovers faster after the injury.
  • Yours costs to the business (eg. reduced productivity, replacement staff recruitment and training, Workcover premiums) are reduced.
  • You retain the skills and knowledge of the injured worker.
  • Morale increases as everyone sees an injured worker is valued.

Yet a speedy return to work doesn’t reflect the workers compensation data for those who suffer a serious mental health condition, which includes employees who have lodged a successful claim for workplace bullying related injury. The average lost time off work for an employee in this claim category is 26.6 weeks. That’s just over half a year off work; and five months longer than the average for a physical injury.

It’s a fair to say, that doesn’t really sound good, or of benefit, for anyone.

Returning to work – a target’s worst nightmare

The thought of a return to work can be a bullied target’s worst nightmare. During COVID, working from home became a perceived safe haven for some bullied employees not having to face up to their bully every day. However, whether returning after COVID or injury there is a safety risk that needs to be addressed.

There is a significant amount of research that indicates workplace bullying in a number of targets results in trauma like symptoms. For example, in one meta-analysis of 29 studies, it was found that an average of 57% of bullied targets would qualify for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A key factor that rules them out of this diagnosis is that bullying does not meet the criteria under a traumatic event. Yet these results in research of trauma like symptoms in bullying targets continue to be replicated.

Trauma like symptoms can include:

  • flashbacks and reliving the traumatic events.
  • avoidance and/or numbing to distressing memories or people, places, activities, objects, etc
  • hyper-arousal where one’s flight or fight response is perpetually turned on resulting constantly in a high degree of tension.

If a target of bullying walks back into the workplace and the employee who bullied them is still there, and they see that individual, they can easily be triggered back into that trauma like state. It is hardly surprising that they don’t want to experience either the bully or their trauma like symptoms.

Return to work requires a heightened response to safety

Considering the knowledge we have, a safety risk management approach requires that for bullied targets we start with an assumption that they may be experiencing trauma like symptoms. We must start implementing strategies that keep those employees safe from the start with that in mind if we are to successfully have them return to work and decrease the costs.

These strategies include:

  • Trauma informed approaches in the workplace for bullied targets. This allows for those individuals to be kept safe, empowered, collaborated with, and maximising their choice in a trustworthy environment.
  • Assessing the target for injury or trauma symptoms, approaching them with empathy and providing them with support to help them manage their work and work environment successfully.
  • The bullying individual needs clear guidance and instruction on their behaviour and/or approach that brings them into the vicinity of the target to minimise harm, maximise safety.

In this way, we can help increase the chances of a successful return to work for the target. The other option is that everyone continues to lose. Which do you want for your business?

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